With so many law schools, how do you decide which school is right for you? Part of your decision will be based on where you think you will get accepted, but there is more to consider than just LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, no matter where you plan to apply. In this episode, we explore the various factors you should consider when deciding where to apply, including curriculum offerings and other activities such as law reviews/journals and clinical programs, opportunities for legal employment after graduation, and factors such as cost, accreditation and location. Our guests will give you specific recommendations on what you should look for in a school as you compile your list of potential law school programs.
- Hewlett Askew, Education Consultant to the American Bar Association – Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
- Wendy Margolis, Director of Communications for the Law School Admission Council (LSAC)
- Linda Abraham, Founder and President of Accepted.com
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice about the law school application process. I’m Bonnie Petrie.
So, you’ve decided to go to law school. Now what? Well, one of the most critical choices you’ll make in your hopefully long and satisfying legal career is also one of the first choices. Where will you go to law school? How do you choose the best law school for you? Suddenly, there are million questions to be answered. How important are your grades as an undergrad? How does your LSAT score help guide your analysis? How about location, networking opportunities, and ABA accreditation? What about cost? How will you pay for your law school education? It’s a lot to think about, and we’ll get you started. We spoke with the experts for you from the American Bar Association, the Law School Admission Council, and a woman who is an expert in helping you get into the school of your choice. That’s all coming up in this show, “Choosing the Right Law School: Understanding The Factors That Will Affect Where You Want To Go To School.”
Choosing the right law school for yourself will be one of the most important career decisions you’ll make, and it involves both a realistic assessment of yourself and your career goals. Before you choose a school, it helps to define your expectations. While grades and test scores will indicate in some measure the range of schools an applicant can consider, choosing the right school for yourself involves an honest appraisal of the factors that matter the most to you and some advance consideration of what type of lawyer you want to be or what you want to do with that law degree.
Hewlett Askew is the Education Consultant for the American Bar Association – the Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. He’s also a parent. We asked him how he would break it down and advise potential applicants, including his own daughter, in considering whether law school is right for them and how to choose among schools. “Well, first of all, if she was considering it, I would encourage her to do it. I think it’s a wonderful profession and a wonderful choice for a career. I wouldn’t push her into it if it weren’t a natural choice for her but if she wanted to do it, I would encourage her. Secondly, I would encourage her to think seriously about what sort of lawyer – why does she want to go to law school and what sort of lawyer does she want to be? And then, that would help make some choices among and between law schools, and then she should take the LSAT exam and get a score. That will help her decide which law schools will she have a good shot at acceptance, and in which ones will she not have a good shot to help her narrow down her choices.”
Your undergraduate grade point average and your Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores, yes. Accepted.com’s Linda Abraham says those scores do matter. “The key factors still are your GPA and your LSAT score. I know that might be heresy in certain circles but that’s the way it is. There are other qualitative factors, like work experience, or leadership experience you can show as an undergrad, but if you’re attempting to assess your qualifications vis-a-vis a given school, I would look at that school’s average GPA and LSAT. If you’re pretty close, either above or below, you don’t have to be above it necessarily, but you certainly don’t want to be significantly below it in both areas.”
Of course, the Law School Admission Test, the LSAT, is a half day standardized test, administered four times each year at designated testing centers around the world. If you’re going to law school, you most certainly have or will take it. Your score will go a long way in determining what law schools you might apply to. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) administers the LSAT and is a non-profit corporation that provides admission-related services to legal education institutions. Wendy Margolis represents the Council and she says, yes, the LSAT and your GPA are extremely important, but schools will give you the opportunity to explain why yours might not be as high as they could be with an addendum essay. “There are some extreme circumstances that would have caused your scores not to be good or your undergraduate GPA not to be good, and that’s why schools give you an opportunity to do a personal essay to possibly explain some reasons, some hardships that you overcame, or some reasons why your grades weren’t as good as they could have been but got a lot better in undergraduate school. You know, there are lots of things and most schools will look at the whole person and not just the numbers. Unfortunately, numbers are a good way for schools that get a whole lot of applications to, you know, sort of pre-screen. But a lot of times, you can make your way past these numbers.”
Still, these two numbers are where you begin when picking a law school. They can give you a realistic sense right off the bat of what schools you might be able to get into and, what schools you can get into, will certainly factor into which school you’ll ultimately choose. So, go the websites of the schools you find interesting. Many law schools will have a grid available that displays the number of applicants with LSAT scores and GPAs like yours who were accepted in the most recent admission year. Where do you fall on that grid?
But don’t let your scores, whatever they maybe, force you to set your sights too low either. The Law School Admission Council encourages you to choose a school where your classmates will challenge you. So, you should try to choose a school where your averages will not be significantly different from those of your fellow law students.
Another very important consideration when choosing the best law school for you is, what do you want to do? Because, Linda Abraham at Accepted.com says, if you don’t have some idea about what kind of law you want to practice, you may choose your school based on something like its name and not what you need. “You knock your head getting into a Harvard or a Yale, one of the big name schools, where really what you should do is look for the best school in international law or whatever it is that floats your boat, but you’ve got to have a boat first. Maybe your interest is going to be in real estate law, intellectual property, or corporate, or something like that, and then you want to go to the school that you have a decent chance of getting into or try the schools where you have a decent chance of getting into. And also, that most appeal to you in terms of your professional interest.”
Abraham says that going to a school that specializes in the area of law in which you’re interested not only gives you access to an in depth education in that field and likely access to professors who are authorities in that field but the extracurricular activities, like moot courts or legal clinics, student journals, well, they’ll be up your alley as well. “There are schools who are doing a lot of innovative things in law; more clinics, more practicums, I guess practica, and that may really appeal to you. Or you may be a traditionalist who really wants the traditional law school, lecture, test, you know, brief cases and this traditional law school curriculum. What does the person want, what are they looking for?”
The Law School Admission Council’s Wendy Margolis says you do want the school you choose to have a wide variety of opportunities, to roll up your sleeves, and get your hands into the law, extracurricular activities that interest you and challenge you and let you apply what you’ve been learning in the classroom. Well, that could also help you get a job after graduation. “It’s widely recommended that if you can get on to the law review or any way that you can sort of help yourself stand out while you’re in law school and things that you can get on your resume while you’re in law school will help you get jobs while you’re out. The more contacts you make, obviously, the more opportunities you’ll have to hear of openings and that sort of thing.”
Yes, networking. These activities can cement those relationships with classmates that will buoy you in your career after you graduate. The networking opportunities in your chosen specialty will be greater in a school that specializes in that area of law. Margolis says, yes, networking is vitality important. “Networking is important to get any kind of employment and especially now. The first thing that you have to do when you’re in law school is get a clerkship or sort of an internship and networking can help you get into those. There’s nothing negative about networking.”
Margolis also says, when building your list of schools, you’ll want to take a look at student bodies not only to see if they’ll challenge and help you develop a vigorous professional network but you want it to be diverse. Why should be diversity be a priority? “Well, exposure to many different kinds of cultures and people is very important in the law, because those are the people you’ll be serving. You don’t just serve one type of people when you’re a lawyer, and the world is becoming much more global. Locations around the country are becoming certainly more much more diverse, so you want your legal training to reflect the diversity in the country and community.”
You’ll also want to know how many students are in a typical class. The Law School Admission Council says, small classes provide essential interaction and large classes provide diversity, challenge, and a good mix of reactions, opinions, and criticism. You’ll, need to evaluate yourself, how do you learn best? Do you like lectures, discussions, taking notes, or do you do a better job in a more intimate individual atmosphere? Margolis says all of this research will help you decide whether you want to go to a big law school or a small law school. “Curriculum begins the same for pretty much every ABA-approved law school. I think a lot depends on what you’re comfortable with. Obviously, the smallest ratio of faculty to students is better, because you get more individual attention but you know for some of the larger law schools, the classes are going to be larger. Generally, the schools will list the class ratio especially on our ABA approved law school search. You can get that information.”
Also, do you like cities or small college towns? You’ll be living there for three years. It’s important to know whether you will be living happily there. Linda Abraham at Accepted.com says, maybe you want to stay close to home. That could save you money. “A lot of times, your local law school, if it’s a state school, will be much less expensive. If you want to stay in the area where you’re currently living or grown up or whatever, you’re also going to have the advantage of making connections and doing those clinics or having an internship and you’ll have an easier time perhaps getting an internship if you’re in the same location.”
And cost is certainly a critical factor for many of us who are picking a law school. How much aid can we get? How much debt will have to take on? Will we be able to pay off that debt when we graduate? For most us, that means we need to feel fairly certain we’ll be able to get a job. In tough economic times like this, Abraham says, you have to be ruthlessly realistic when trying to discern what the chances are you will be employed after you graduate and employed with a salary big enough to cover your debt. If you have found yourself a well-paying job and you have debts to eventually pay off, you could look into a debt consolidation calculator to calculate how much you’ll have to pay each month and for how long, this way financial planning for the future gets a little easier. “You have to look, I think, very carefully at where graduates of your schools are going, getting their jobs, and what kind of typical salary they are they getting when they graduate vis-à-vis what is it going to cost you to attend. It’s a three-year professional program. If you go to a very expensive private school and it’s not going to get you a job, then you’re going to have lot debts to pay back and not necessarily the means to pay it back. So, there has to be a weighing up of cost and benefit.”
Now, no one has crystal ball but you do want to do your best to make sure you’re likely to have the type of employment when you finish law school that will let you start repaying those student loans pretty soon after graduation and the bar exam. “You can go to any law school’s website and find out where the graduates are going. What is the average salary of a graduate? Where are they getting jobs and thing like that? The tuition numbers are also publicly available, so multiply this year’s tuition by three, that’s going to be the total cost of law school. If you have to borrow it, calculators will calculate the interest payments, it’s just not that tough and then look again at the salary, compare it. Are you going to be able to afford it?”
What are each school’s most recent graduates doing? Bar passage rate, again, that’s publicly available information. You can look at what percentage of the class has a job, let’s say, three months after graduation. What percentage of the class is doing contract work?” The Law School Admission Council’s Wendy Margolis says it’s all about research. “Look at the placement rates from those law schools and see what types of placement, you know, dig a little deeper at those schools and see what kind of placements those are and what kind of jobs people have gotten after they’ve graduated from those law schools. Definitely, you can talk to alums, contact the alumni association. If you’re limited geographically, then talk to the lawyers in your community and see where they went. If they’re employed, that might be a good sign.”
You may want to carefully consider whether a prestigious, yet high priced, law school will make sense for you. Many applicants considering law school assume without a thorough investigation that they’ll be able to land a high paying associate position at one of the big law firms. Not surprisingly, of course, the recession has made it more competitive for law students seeking these high paying jobs. So, when you’re picking a law school, pick the best one you can afford to pay for no matter what kind of job you get after graduation.
The recent emphasis on cost benefit analysis when picking a law school has led some applicants to consider law schools not accredited by the American Bar Association. Well, what is ABA accreditation? What does it mean for law schools? Hewlett Askew runs the office where they decide if a law school meets ABA standards. “The American Bar Association, more specifically my section, the section of Legal Education, is recognized by the Department of Education as the only federally recognized accrediting authority for the award of the JD, Juris Doctor Degree, in the United States. So, we are, in essence, the official accreditor of legal – national accreditor – of legal education. If a school, a new school or, even an existing unaccredited law school, would like to become accredited by the ABA, then we have a very clearly stated and formal process that a school goes through to achieve ABA recognition. We have standards for the approval of law schools that every school that wishes to be approved by us has to meet and, in order to maintain its approval from the ABA, has to continue to be in compliance with through its life.”
So, if you do choose a law school that is ABA-accredited, you can be sure of a few things. “There are standards on the curriculum, for instance, in what a law school must offer in the way of a curriculum. It has to offer skills courses. It has to offer a course, in essence, on professional responsibility, the ethical rules. It has to offer substantial training in legal writing for all of the students enrolled. It has to have a faculty that is adequate to provide the program that it is offering to the students, so we take a look at the faculty size and the student-faculty ratio for instance. It’s not a one size fits all sort of approach. Law schools are given a good bit of flexibility in terms of their choices of course load, choices of a curriculum but they are required to provide a certain number of hours of instruction in the award of the JD Degree. There are other requirements for the library, for instance, that a law school must maintain in order to remain accredited. So, many of those standards speak to quality. Some of them speak to consumer issues, consumer protection, to make certain that students are going to receive what they bargained for, in essence, when they applied to or are accepted by this law school.”
The law programs at all ABA-accredited law schools meet certain basic standards. Askew says, attending a law school with ABA accreditation will also give you greater flexibility as you job hunt. “Every [state] supreme court in the United States has decided on its own to accept an ABA degree as a qualification for admission to practice in that state. There is no national admission of lawyers. There is a state by state admission of lawyers and every jurisdiction maintains its own admissions requirements, its own bar exam, its own character and fitness process, that sort of thing. However, every state has chosen to accept an ABA- approved degree as meeting the educational eligibility requirements for admission. If you go to a law school that’s not approved by the ABA, then you may be eligible in some states but you will not be eligible in every state. And so, what the ABA degree gives to a student is complete flexibility in terms of where they may want to choose to practice or, after they practice for awhile, migrating to a different state knowing that their degree qualifies them for admission in which ever state they choose to go to.”
Perspective bosses may also be reassured by your ABA JD. “Hopefully, it’s also a statement to employers that the student has a degree that has been – the quality of which is not in question, in terms of the training the student has received, the exposure to the values of the profession which is one of the things in our standards, that sort of thing. So, we hope that it’s also a stamp of approval for employers in terms of hiring decisions that are being made.”
Now, these things should all factor into your cost benefit analysis when choosing a law school and, bottom line, some of you may still find a non-ABA school is the best school for you. For instance, Askew says, an ABA-accredited school must require a student to live at school for a certain amount of time. “There are many people, particularly second career people, who decide they want to go to law school after they’ve had a career doing something else but they simply cannot go to a residential law school for one reason another. A pilot is a good example, someone who flies for a living. There’s no way probably, given their schedule, that they could attend an ABA-approved law school and meet the residency requirements of that school. So, there is a niche for online law schools, for unaccredited law schools to meet for students who have a particular need.
If you can only do online classes, obviously, a non-ABA school is your only choice. The Law School Admission Council’s Wendy Margolis says a non-ABA degree might be fine if you don’t want to practice at all. “You know, there are lots of things that people do with the law degree besides practicing law and even just, you know, having your own business that sort of thing. There are good reasons to study law. If you’re not planning to be a lawyer, it may be fine to go to a non-ABA approved law school.”
The ABA’s Hewlett Askew says, if ABA accreditation matters to you, you can probably find a school that fits into your financial picture. “There are 200 ABA-approved law schools. Every state except Alaska has at least one ABA-approved law school and most have several. So, there are schools geographically located everywhere that are approved by the ABA. There are also a number of schools that are relatively inexpensive in terms of tuition. I know for a fact that there are 45 law schools in the United States that charge less than $15,000 per year in tuition. They’re mostly state schools but there is an inexpensive alternative within the ABA structure. There has been a belief, I think, that is not accurate that, because of ABA approval, the cost of tuition, the cost of the legal education goes up dramatically and therefore all ABA-approved law schools are very expensive. That’s not accurate.”
Now, what if you’re making law school work financially by keeping your full time job? One of your most important considerations might be, does a law school offer a part-time program?
“There are lots of schools that have part-time programs. Law is a hard study. I think, a long time ago most schools used to require that you went full time and didn’t work but, I think, everybody understands the realities of life. Not everybody’s employers are going to pay for law school and that sort of thing but some people do go to law school because they’re employers are paying for it. So, obviously, they have to keep working. And so, they’re a lot of reasons why a part-time program makes sense for people. They have family responsibilities. They have to work.”
But before you finally choose your school, apply, enroll, and take on all this debt, Linda Abraham at Accepted.com says, particularly in these economically uncertain times, you need to be sure you’re considering law school for the right reason, because you think you’ll love being a lawyer. “So many people like the social sciences and they were English Lit majors and they think, ‘yeah, I can make a living at law. I’ll go into law.’ Or it’s a good foundation for something, they don’t have a clue what. It’s a good foundation to practice law.” Is that you? “Somebody who’s not afraid to work hard and somebody who has good verbal skills, good critical thinking, skills that really – that’s what the LSAT tests, critical thinking and reading comprehension. You have to read a lot and you have to be able to understand and compare information. And so, that’s the kind of person who would do well in law, somebody who can really apply themselves.”
In narrowing your choices for law school, take the time to identify all the important factors and then consider your range of options. You have a list of law schools where the students’ GPAs and LSATs are about the same as yours, whose graduates get jobs, that have quality classes in the area of law you’re interested in, and a variety of engaging extracurricular activities, you like the class sizes, the student-teacher ratio, the diversity, the communities, and you’re going to apply.
The Law School Admission Council’s Wendy Margolis says to apply to at least one you think you will have trouble getting into, some that will be challenging for you to get into but you probably can, and then at least one you’re sure you can get into. “The reach school, the sure thing, and you know, just some middle of the road ones. Everybody applies to the top law schools in their minds, the ones that everybody has heard of, but there are a lot of really good law schools in the country and especially for people who aren’t willing to move around or have a budget. There certainly is usually a law school that a person can get into. Now, the thing to do at those law schools is to really excel and do your very best, so that you will stand out and be able to get a job when you get out.”
You’ve chosen the best law schools. Now, it’s up to your law school to choose you back.
I’m Bonnie Petrie with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. For more information, a transcript of this show or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit Lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Bonnie Petrie. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.